Suspicious null objects in the news

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Below is a guest post by Jason Merchant.


There is an interesting grammatical point in an article in today's New York Times exploring some of the strands of support for Donald Trump, who has repeatedly been endorsed by racists, neo-Nazis, and their fellow travelers. In prior campaigns, such endorsements were typically followed by immediate and explicit disavowals by the Republican candidates, who would often take pains to express inclusionist ideas (compare the 1980 primary debate between Bush and Reagan here for the very different tone the Republican primaries had in the past, for example).

Trump has charted a different course. He has contented himself with what the Times calls 'a vague refrain': when pressed about these endorsements, as for example after onetime KKK member David Duke spoke in Trump's favor, Trump's response was merely "David Duke endorsed me? O.K. All right. I disavow, O.K.?"

These words–"I disavow"–appear to be Trump's mantra when asked about such endorsements. Trump apparently believes that they are sufficient to satisfy the media's and the public's desire that he disassociate himself from racist, neo-Nazi, and other extreme rightwing groups; perhaps he believes the two words to be some kind of panacea.

But the "white racialists" who support him, such as one Richard Spencer, quoted in the article, are not fooled, and neither should anyone else be. Mr. Spencer made the linguistically accurate observation: "There's no direct object there," Mr. Spencer said. "It's kind of interesting, isn't it?"

Yes, very interesting, in fact. Though it's long been known that almost any transitive verb in English can occur without an object in a generic context ("They just destroy, destroy, destroy: they never build anything"), "I disavow" isn't being used in a generic context: it's being used as a simple eventive present, like "I apologize", or "I confess". But "disavow" is an obligatorily transitive verb (like "devour", "ingest", "note", "pride", "perjure", "comb", "despise", and unlike the optionally transitive "bake", "eat", "notice", "divorce", "shave"). So for most speakers of English, "I disavow" sounds like a an incomplete sentence. Which is no doubt the point.

 



41 Comments

  1. Evan Harper said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 8:03 pm

    Now all we need is a folllow-up post chronicling mistaken descriptions of this as "passive voice."

    It's at least closer, isn't it? At least it has something to do with using a transitive verb without a direct object…

  2. GeorgeW said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 8:11 pm

    "But "disavow" is an obligatorily transitive verb (like "devour", "ingest", "note", "pride", "perjure", "comb", "despise . . ."

    It is interesting that these seem appropriate to Trump as well.

  3. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 10:13 pm

    Maybe there's ellipsis going on?

    [(myl) There is certainly ellipsis going on. The point is that it's a very unusual case of ellipsis. For example, there are 633 instances of [disavow] in COCA, and (unless I missed it) exactly one example where the direct object is elided–

    From a 2006 Miami Vice script: # Carefully stacked in the living room are the PLASTIC-WRAPPED BRICKS OF COCAINE THAT CROCKETT AND TUBBS STOLE FROM SAL MAGUDA'S WAREHOUSE WHEN THEY BLEW UP HIS BOATS. Hog-tied and bleeding all over his clothes, in the corner is Neptune. His mouth is taped. He's shaking his head… disclaiming, disowning and disavowing…

    ]

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 11:16 pm

    Is trump obligatorily transitive? Money trumps principle, career trumps romance, and so on.

    And yet in bridge it's not incorrect to say something like "West leads with the king; declarer trumps."

  5. Chris C. said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 1:06 am

    @Gregory Kusnick — For my own part, I have yet to be convinced that bridge columns are written in English.

  6. Michael Rank said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 4:22 am

    'But "disavow" is an obligatorily transitive verb (like "devour", "ingest", "note", "pride",…' Since when was "pride" a verb?

    [(myl) According to the OED, since 1200 or so:

    a1275  (▸?c1200)    Prov. Alfred (Trin. Cambr.) 133 (MED),   Bute he mote himseluen pruden, he wole maken fule luden.

    Or in more modern versions of the same construction:

    1882   A. W. Ward Dickens iv. 91   He prided himself on his punctuality.
    1953   H. Clevely Public Enemy vi. 32   He prided himself that his voice sounded quite ordinary; he was giving nothing away.

    But pride as a transitive verb is a different sort of thing from disavow, it seems to me, since its object is almost always a reflexive.]

  7. Michael Watts said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 4:27 am

    Gregory Kusnick, you seem to be under the impression that those are two examples of one verb? They certainly aren't.

  8. JPL said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 4:28 am

    The news media is not doing its job, as usual, and in their misguided obsession with "neutrality" and "centrism" are acting as enablers of this clearly racist, xenophobic mountebank and would- be dictator who is making an illegitimate and destructive popular appeal just to feed his narcissistic urges; and, instead of forthrightly describing his significance accurately and condemning his divisive candidacy in a responsible way, are refusing to ask the simple and obvious follow- up question, "Disavow what, exactly? What do you disavow?" And then, "What about the undeniably racist reasons these groups have for supporting your candidacy: Do you think these are good reasons for supporting you?" And then, "does this not bother you, that your message appeals to groups like these?" And so on. I would not expect any answers to questions like these from Trump, but it should be made clear that in the absence of answers we are entitled to assume the worst, which (that worst) should be expressed explicitly by the interviewer. That this candidate is clearly unsuitable for the office and a dangerous threat to the American democratic political institutions should be obvious, uncontroversial and practically a fact. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was right to speak out, and instead of treating Trump as a normal candidate the media has a responsibility to make sure he does not succeed, and they should be told this in no uncertain terms, e.g., by people who come on the tv and talk to the Chuck Todds of the world.

    If "I disavow." is taken as a performative, parallel to e.g., "I apologize", then as with the case where it is not clear what the person is apologizing for, it must be made explicit in order to be an effective apology: the apologizer must acknowledge the harm done to the other person by mentioning the act and the harmful result of the act in question, otherwise it doesn't count. And this is sometimes a problem, as when a person says, "I'm sorry if …." as a way of avoiding an apology. There is a Seinfeld episode that has a bit about misfired apologies. So far, Trump has disavowed nothing.

  9. Alan B said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 6:37 am

    @Gregory Kusnick — in British English, trump is an intransitive verb referring to an embarrassing bodily function.

  10. Gene Callahan said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 7:54 am

    Stick to actual linguistics: smear tactics do not become you.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 9:24 am

    I think I've heard parallel instances in court in oral back-and-forth between judges and lawyers, where e.g. the judge wants to know if the lawyer (more formally, the client the lawyer represents) is actually definitively waiving a legal or factual argument previously raised but not currently being actively pursued in the case. An exchange like "Q. Ok, but do you waive? A. Yes, Your Honor, we waive." where the object is not specified because it is clear from context, would seem perfectly idiomatic to me in such a context. (I have a strong memory from my first year out of law school of seeing the late https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._Leon_Higginbotham_Jr., who could be very forceful when he wanted to be, spending several minutes pinning down a lawyer who was trying to keep his options open by evading an unequivocal yes/no answer to that sort of question.)

    I have no idea to what extent that sort of idiomatic-in-a-given-context back and forth makes it into COCA-like sources. Things like tv/movie scripts with courtroom scenes sometimes get the speech patterns right and sometimes wrong, but even when right may be incomplete (esp because frankly 99% of courtroom dialogue is really boring and there may be lots of idiomatic usages that don't tend to manifest in the dramatic 1%).

    "Disavow" is more of a high-falutin' word in a legalese context than a technical jargony one, but if it were the latter I could see null-object "disavow" being idiomatic in the same context. Here, since Trump himself has just stated the thing-to-be-disavowed (the Duke endorsement) from his own mouth, there is no ambiguity in context. Obviously, one could add objects of varying length, e.g.

    a. "I disavow it."
    b. "I disavow that."
    c. "I disavow the endorsement of David Duke."
    d. "I disavow the endorsement of David Duke, who is a really, really horrible person."
    etc.

    As with apologies, it it certainly possible that the more fulsome version may be more advantageous in the context of the relationship with the person being addressed, and perhaps negative inferences may be drawn if one of the terser versions is used, but it seems disingenuous to say the terser version (here, including the objectless one) is actually ambiguous. And thinking the shorter version is pro forma and insincere seems naive since the longer/fulsome version can be equally "performative" (in the sense of reflecting the speaker's understanding of what social convention requires in order to get out of the particular jam) and just as pro forma and insincere.

  12. Robert Coren said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 10:23 am

    Is pride as a verb ever used other than reflexively? I can't think of any possible such usage.

  13. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 11:09 am

    I'm doubtful about this. It seems to me that, as J.W. Brewer's comment suggests, the object can frequently be dropped when it is clear from context. When Sarah Palin said 'Peaceful Muslims, please refudiate,' people questioned both her vocabulary and the appropriateness of the sentiment, but I don't remember anyone saying 'That doesn't make sense: she hasn't said what she wants them to refudiate' – though it's clear that to repudiate (or refute, or refuse, or any other verb she might have had in mind) is always to repudiate (etc.) something.

    Michael Watts: On what basis do you say that they are two verbs. I had always supposed that 'trump' as in 'money trumps principle' is a metaphorical use of 'trump' as in card-play. (And in actual card-play, it doesn't need an explicit object because it's obvious what is being trumped.)

  14. Anthony said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 12:39 pm

    A different sort of null object making news in the Wall Street Journal:

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/if-you-cant-follow-directions-youll-end-up-on-null-island-1468422251

  15. Brett said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 1:47 pm

    @Robert Coren: I can't seem to come up with a non-reflexive use of the "pride" as a verb. The only other English verb I can think of that requires a reflexive construction is "perjure," although there are probably a few more that aren't coming to mind.

  16. Christian Weisgerber said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 2:54 pm

    When you move between different languages (English, French, German in my case), you can observe how they differ in their requirement for the object of a formally transitive verb to be made explicit or to be elided and left to context. If I ask you "how do you like the fish?", you can't respond with "I hate" in English, you have to add the object pronoun, "I hate it", redundant as it is in context. In French, you can simply say "je déteste". No object necessary, since the context makes it clear what you are referring to. Never mind that dictionaries will tell you that "détester" is an obligatorily transitive verb.

    The rules which objects can be elided in which context in which language aren't obvious, probably ill covered by grammar texts, and quite likely not stable.

    (I think Trump's usage is just a quirk and Jason Merchant is overinterpreting it and is using the linguistic aspect as an excuse for a political statement.)

  17. Bev said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 3:29 pm

    I am out-witted in this group, so I'd hoped to learn from it.

    I had in mind to link the Language Log to an educational blog. As it was referred to me, it seemed to be something pertinent to said blog. As I read the first post, Suspicious Null Objects in the News, however, I came to realize that this is a political site. Reading through the posts, I do see a few other posters who give this place a little balance; but I'm still disappointed with the politics here.

    I'm sure my take doesn't bother anyone, but it made me feel better to have said it.

    Sadly, because of the political current, I won't include a link. My sadness is in that I see a great deal of spectacular intellect here from which a plebe such as I might learn things other than political tripe.

    Damn. Just damn.

  18. Eric P Smith said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 5:25 pm

    @Bev: I have no interest whatsoever in American politics. (I'm a Brit, and I haven't even got much interest in British politics.) I nevertheless find Donald Trump's use of language fascinating. I share your disappointment that this thread contains political side-swipes. But I have been following Language Log for many years and I have generally found it to be refreshingly free of political content. Take another look as soon as you feel able.

  19. Greg said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 5:25 pm

    @Bev: Your comment seems like it could be a troll, so I'm hesitant in responding. However, I feel like it should be pointed out that this is clearly categorized under "Language and politics." Also, unlike many "political" and "news" blogs where people are allowed to comment, I believe readers of LL tend to discuss things objectively and dispassionately. While the content of this post is related to politics, I don't think it is ideologically driven. And if you disagree with the author's proposition, you could just state that like Christian Weisgerber does, or you could state it and back it up with supporting evidence.

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 7:39 pm

    Just at the descriptive-linguistics level, I think it's probably true that many/most candidates for public office would issue more fulsome disavowals, and most conventional campaign strategists/advisers/handlers/PR-people would have advised a more fulsome disavowal. Thus it means *something* that Trump doesn't/didn't do so, but the issue with Trump's very-terse disavowals is not vagueness or ambiguity but something else. It's a sociolinguistics question rather than a syntax/semantics question. He is failing to follow certain conventions of how elaborately it is traditionally deemed socially appropriate to talk about certain sorts of topics on certain occasions. The NYT writer's reaction, however, may be the common error of moralizing usage questions and supposing that failure to follow social conventions intended to signal that you are a respectable sort of person who believes in the conventional pieties means you must be a wicked person. Trump may of course actually be a wicked person, but his failure to observe certain speech conventions is not much evidence of that. To some extent intentionally violating such conventions is certainly evidence that you think the conventions are stupid and/or hypocritical and/or unnecessary (and/or that you want people to believe you are the sort of person who doesn't feel himself bound by such conventions), but there are a wide range of reasons (probably not all consistent with each other) why you might think such a thing.

  21. Michael Watts said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 8:23 pm

    Andrew (not the same one):

    They are different verbs because they have different meanings and relate to different semantic roles. Claiming they are one verb would be much like claiming that run "move under your own power in a manner similar to walking but such that you are not always in contact with the ground" and run "operate (a machine, system, etc.)" are one verb.

  22. Mark S said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 8:58 pm

    @Michael Watts: The two uses of "trump" are clearly related and come from the same etymology. I don't know if a linguistics professional would call them "the same verb", but there's another etymology of "trump" which clearly counts as "a different verb". See https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/trump .

  23. Michael Watts said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 9:49 pm

    Mark S: The two uses of "run" that I listed also derive the one from the other.

    Running river -> running machinery -> causative run.

  24. Michael Watts said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 10:01 pm

    Correction: I cannot claim that "run", of water or other physical or metphorical substances, derives from "run", of animals. Feel free to amend my example to run (as of a machine) and run (as of ink), which are one and the same purely in etymological terms, though not in any real sense.

  25. Bev said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 10:11 pm

    Eric, thank you for the encouragement.

    Greg, although I'm pretty old, I've not yet been called a troll. (Well, not to my face, anyway.)

    Greg, I have missed the notification of, "Language and politics." Your statement, however, leaves me informed.

  26. Filter Fodder said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 11:23 pm

    @Michael Watts

    Is "run" much different from any ergative verb like "break" as in "the window broke" vs "I broke the window"? Do you consider those different verbs too?

  27. tangent said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 1:14 am

    Sometimes a person has a real point about language usage, but they feel it will be more indisputable if they make it a point about grammar. The knowledge that "wrong grammar" is stigmatized may be a bonus sometimes.

    I think that's what we have here. Trump's usage is grammatically unusual. But would the effect really be much different if he said "I disavow it"? Still with the minimal specificity, still a stock phrase; the way it comes across to me is "I'm saying what you asked me to say, okay?" (Sounds like it comes across that way to his 'white racialist' fans too.).

    The difference from that to dropping "it" is minimal, to me. Maybe it adds a touch more of this being a rote phrase.

  28. Michael Watts said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 1:25 am

    Filter Fodder: yes, those are different verbs, but that's not the point I'm making about run and run. That point is that run as in "run a bath" and run as in "run a charity" are different verbs.

  29. Francis Boyle said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 1:55 am

    @Michael Watts

    Not being a linguist I'll phrase this as a question: If the spelling and pronunciation of two words are indistinguishable and those two words are clearly etymologically related what does it mean to assert that they are in fact different words?

  30. Jeff B. said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 3:08 am

    I agree that this seems more political than linguistic.

    I suppose it is interesting to note a novel, intransitive use of the word "avow," especially by such a prominent figure. But the resulting psychoanalysis seems like Orwellian gibberish to me and it's precisely this kind of poppycock that makes people think linguistics is pseudoscience–or worse.

  31. Michael Watts said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 3:15 am

    It means that a person's mental lexicon must contain two separate entries rather than one unified one. Generally when it comes up at all it is for words which are similar but have different meanings, but obviously "pleasure" and "furthermore" are also two different words. They differ in pronunciation, part of speech, meaning to the extent that "furthermore" can be said to have meaning…

    Ring is a verb which means "surround"; it is derived from the noun ring, spelled and pronounced identically, which refers to a particular shape. I think it's fair to say that the etymological relationship would be transparent to anyone on the street today. One being a verb and the other being a noun, I doubt you could find more than two or three lunatics to defend the idea that they are the same word. Right the noun, meaning "legal entitlement", and right the adjective, meaning "the opposite of left", are also spelled identically, pronounced identically, and (not "clearly" to an uneducated person) etymologically related.

    I'll put this question in its own paragraph, because I think the answer has a lot to do with what it means for two words to be different: why do you think it's important that an etymological relationship should be "clear"?

    On the other hand, a and an are spelled differently, pronounced differently, and unquestionably the same word. It's possible to distinguish them in writing as I just did because they are spelled differently, but there is no logical requirement that they should be spelled differently and the fact that they are doesn't make them different words. Similarly, go and went are the same word despite coming from different roots. They differ only in tense, which is a common dimension of variation in english verbs.

  32. Francis Boyle said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 6:23 am

    I certainly missed the noun/verb distinction, probably because it doesn't apply to the example under discussion ('run'). I have no particular intuition about your ring example; it seems to me simply a matter of convention, something for linguists to decide as a matter of professional practice. But in the 'run' example I just don't see any principled basis for distinguishing the cases Are we to say that whenever a creative language user (which we all are) uses a word in a novel way they have, in fact, created a new word? That does seem to me counter-intuitive.

    I don't think etymology is ultimately significant here. I only mentioned it to suggest that there's a consideration something like your 'mental lexicon' which I don't know how to cash. (And I do think it does needs cashing.)

  33. John Roth said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 6:55 am

    On the "are they two different verbs" question. To do some heavy-duty linguistics on this, you might wander over to Framenet. There's a very precise definition using semantic frames.

  34. Michael Watts said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 10:44 am

    How would Framenet, or a semantic-frames treatment in general, distinguish between buy/sell, which are different verbs, and go/went, which aren't?

  35. Bev said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 11:28 am

    Politically-awash, or not. I'm hooked by the lexiconic brilliance on here. @John Roth, thank you for the direction to Frame Net. WOW!

    When I make errors, please, correct me! (Kindness is appreciated, but it is not expected or needed!)

    I bow to the lexical lumination on here, and I hope to asborb as much of the related wisdom as I can. (Personally, I'll either overlook the political stuff or consider it as a source of humor.)

    Who cares? 'Tis ME! I do!

  36. Bev said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 1:13 pm

    'Tis I! I saw that!

  37. John Roth said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 6:20 pm

    Michael

    I'm not sure I understand your question. Buy (Commerce_buy) and Sell (Commerce_sell) are perspectives on "Commerce_goods-transfer". Went is the past tense of go, surely? I don't have any idea why a frame analysis would need to distinguish them. Or any variety of semantic analysis, for that matter.

    Actually, I don't see either in the lexical unit index, possibly because they're too generic?

  38. Michael Watts said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 6:52 pm

    Here is the most core sense of "go" in the lexical unit index; many other senses and related verbs are also present. "Went", as far as I can tell, is not present in the index at all (it is present in the annotations, of course). You can't use Framenet to demonstrate that "go" and "went" are one and the same verb; the most you can show is that this is assumed to be the case. Similarly, you can't use Framenet to demonstrate that "buy" and "sell" are different verbs. (They are: the semantic roles that Framenet identifies are assigned to different syntactic positions based on the verb. But that data isn't part of Framenet.)

    My point is that Framenet doesn't address the question of what it means for two verbs to be the same or different, and how you could tell, at all. They don't give any definition because that question is not of interest to them. Rather, they meticulously list every different sense of a word that comes to their attention. (Of relevance to this thread, they do not list the sense of "run", or of "go", that relates to the being_operational frame.) I don't see that Framenet is adding anything to the discussion of how to identify that two verb tokens are or aren't different that a dictionary entry doesn't bring to the table just as effectively.

  39. Russell said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 7:15 pm

    Wow, FrameNet!

    go.v is in several FN frames, Motion among them. went is not listed because it is understood as a wordform of the lexeme go. So asking if they are different "words" is a bit of an illformed (or underspecified) question. One can identify lexemes: sets of wordforms like {go, goes, went, …}, with certain relationships holding among them (past-tense-of, 3sg.present-of, etc.), and which need not be associated with a unique meaning.

    Then, one proposes lexeme-meaning pairs (framenet's "lexical unit"), e.g., go-motion, go-compatibility (this doesn't go well with that), etc. Then you can ask,

    "are there really two separate lexeme-meaning pairs, both with the same set of wordforms {go, went, …}, but one means 'move' and one means 'compatible with'? Or can any apparent differences be understood in terms of other principles, like the meanings of the surrounding words, metaphor, etc.?"

    Questions on the lexeme side I think are usually more straightforward, but you could get into questions like "what, if anything, is shared between bucket 'pail' and bucket in 'kick the bucket'?"

  40. GeorgeW said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 7:56 pm

    Transitive object dropping may be a feature of Trump speak. It was reported that he said about his VP selection: "I'd like to save it, give it the old fashioned way, right? You go to the convention, you announce, and in many cases you announce and they don't even know until you announce."
    My 'announce' requires an object.

  41. Ray said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 8:09 pm

    @Bev: no need to doubt your instincts. yes, it's like watching rogue descriptivists appealing to their institutionalized prescriptivist base. but hey, that's the magic and fun of u.s. politics!

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